April 28, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Mrs Dalloway," by Virginia Woolf

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
By Virginia Woolf
Book #15 of this essay series

(Once again, I was not able to get my hands on what was supposed to be today's book under review, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, because of that freakin' Oprah and that all-powerful book club of hers. Given that this is the second month in a row now that I haven't been able to track down a copy through Chicago's public library system, I am officially declaring it today a lost cause and pushing the book's scheduled reading to 2009. Sorry to all of those who are disappointed by the news.)

The story in a nutshell:
For those who don't know, most artistic mediums first go through a period of history when they're seen as only fit for delivering entertainment, before a generation of mature creatives finally argue and prove that legitimate works of art can be created from them as well; to cite one famous example, think of the challenging, cutting-edge film directors of the 1960s and '70s, the first to argue that a movie can be just as much an artistic project as any painting or sculpture. In the world of novels, then, this period came roughly between the death of Queen Victoria (in 1900) and the outbreak of World War II (1930s), a period along with the '40s, '50s and '60s that we now call "Modernism" because of so many of those artists embracing the new back then so intensely. And indeed, just like her contemporaries James Joyce and Henry James, early-Modernist Virginia Woolf was a big believer in the idea of words (and especially sets of words) having a kind of life and heft of their own; that they weren't just good for relating a narrative story in codified form but that random words themselves hold an intrinsic power, that random sentences plucked from the head can hold a beauty and truth to them on their own, even if they make no traditional "sense" when read or spoken in the order they're in.

As a result, Woolf's 1925 Mrs Dalloway is not really "about" something in particular, or at least in the way we traditionally think of novels; again, like Joyce's Ulysses (written only three years previous), it is instead a simple look at one day in the life of a middle-aged cultured woman in London, as she first prepares for a party she is throwing at her house and then actually throws it. What Mrs Dalloway really is, then, is a full transcript of what exactly goes through that woman's head during this day, literally jumping from subject to subject and from the past to the future and back without the novel itself giving us clues that it's doing so, a challenging style of writing that Woolf and other Modernist authors coined "stream of consciousness." The idea is that you are literally inside the head of Mrs Dalloway with her, as she makes her way through a random day and evening of her life; and that by having such an intimate, primal relationship with her, you end up understanding her life in a more intuitive way than a traditional novel can convey, and understanding her loves and attitudes and past heartbreaks in a deep and profound way that traditional literature usually fails at. The entire point of the book, like with many early-Modernist experiments from this time period, is not necessarily to discover what "happens," but rather to understand the people involved and their hopes and fears in as thorough a way as possible; according to the Modernists, such experimental writing styles tap straight into the reader's subconscious more then the codified filters of a traditional story, thus making it a better way to actually convey such deep character-based tales.

The argument for it being a classic:
As you can guess, the main argument for this book being a classic seems to be two-fold: because of its immense historical significance (being as it is one of the first truly successful Modernist novels, both in critical and financial terms); not to mention that so many people over the decades really have had such an intense and passionate reaction to it, and really do find it a much better way to impart significant character information than traditional novels. Now, that said, I think even Woolf's biggest fans would quickly say that she's not for everyone, and that even if you like her work it is still an acquired taste; she's simply one of those experimental writers where you need to sit down and actually read one of her books, and simply see if you were born a person who likes it or born a person who wasn't. And along those lines, fans would say that Mrs Dalloway is a perfect choice; written smack-dab in the middle of her career, it lacks the pure abstraction that her later books can sometimes exhibit, while still being experimental and polished enough to understand why people go so nuts for her in the first place. And take note, all you ladies and especially lesbians; on top of being a gifted and historically important experimental writer, the openly bisexual Woolf was also one of the first artists plucked from semi-obscurity by the then-new academic field of "women's studies" in the early 1970s, a bastion of that field who is as important to gay and feminist literature as Charles Dickens is to old white guys.

The argument against:
Like I said, Mrs Dalloway isn't for everyone, and curiously enough its critics can use just about the same argument as laid out above by its fans; that it is too experimental, too artsy-fartsy, too interested in showing off how weird and brilliant it can be instead of simply trying to convey a story. There's a very good reason, after all, that the early Modernist period is so intensely embraced by the academic literary community, because it's the period that basically created their community and justifies its continued existence; like I said, before 1900 novels were mostly seen as simply a form of entertainment (much like how we today view, say, most television shows), with people like Woolf being among the first novelists ever to declare, "Yeah, you're pretty much going to need a college degree to understand what the hell I'm trying to say." It all goes downhill from there, critics argue, leading to the situation we have now, of the novel format receding from the general popular culture and of no one being able to get published anymore without first earning an MFA; you can blame people like Woolf for starting that whole process, the argument goes, with Mrs Dalloway as a result certainly not being something we should consider a classic, but rather a book to be scorned and shunned for what it produced.

My verdict:
So I find myself in a curious and so-far new position today with the CCLaP 100: A position where I personally quite disliked the book being reviewed, but will be arguing anyway that it is a classic, one that all of you out there should at least take a chance on once before you die. Because it's true, it's very true, that millions of people over the decades have very definitely fallen in love with this novel and its unique format, despite me not doing so myself; as mentioned, by its very nature it's not going to be for everyone, with you basically being either genetically predisposed to either love it or hate it. That's ultimately why I'm recommending today that everyone read it, after all, is because Woolf is one of those writers you simply need to actually read in order to form an opinion; an infinite amount of reviews and essays never ultimately do any good with a writer like her, in that when you are a person she speaks to, she speaks to you by vibrating inside your very bones themselves. We should treasure these kinds of artists, no matter what you think of one particular one or another, because they have somehow found a way to directly communicate with their fans in a deeply basic, almost non-language way; and given that the world of novels is mostly based on language and its resulting codified meaning, such non-language communication is a tricky and impressive thing indeed. If you are a fan of Jack Kerouac, Mark Danielewski or Michelle Tea, you owe it to yourself to try out this book as well; I'm not saying necessarily that you're going to like it, but I will say that it's definitely worth the effort to find out.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
In two Fridays: The Island of Dr Moreau, by HG Wells
In three Fridays: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
In four Fridays: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:19 PM, April 28, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |